Marcus Aurelius: Life is Brief

Live not as though there were a thousand years ahead of you. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours.” ~ Marcus Aurelius

I recently scribbled this quote on my youngest daughter’s birthday card. Just her luck, her father is a philosopher! Seriously though the fleeting, ephemeral nature of life is a basic tenet of Stoicism and Buddhism, a basic motif of Proust and Shakespeare. What is it about the passing of time that is so compelling yet disturbing, and what can we learn from it?

An 80-year lifespan is 960 months or about 29,000 days long. Think of that, an entire life. If you are middle-aged and will live another 40 years that’s only 480 months or about 15,000 days. And for someone my age with a life expectancy of maybe 15 more years, that’s 180 months or about 5500 days. This is shockingly brief.

The stream we are floating down, slowly, inexorably, and beyond our control is … life. We are thrown into the world, imagine endless possibilities if we are lucky and then, suddenly, time has passed. We can’t stop it, rewind it, or fast-forward it even if we want to. And what of our destination? Looking back on almost 60 years of living, I feel a kinship with Yeats:

When I think of all the books I have read, and of the wise words I have heard spoken, and of the anxiety I have given to parents and grandparents, and of the hopes that I have had … my own life seems to me a preparation for something that never happens.

Perhaps this is what’s so disturbing about time. It refers to a now unreal past, a vanishingly short present, all while leading to a future that quickly disappears. Perhaps something is amiss in life, and part of what’s missing manifests itself in time’s flow. Personal immortality has been proposed to ameliorate our worries, but I reject the comfort of charlatans, of purveyors of salve. As Diderot put it: “Lost in an immense forest during the night I have only a small light to guide me. An unknown man appears and says to me: ‘My friend blow out your candle so you can better find your way.’ This unknown man is a theologian.”

Today we have many cults from which to choose. But I reject them all. Instead, I will keep my candle, my little light of reason, even though I am lost in time. No longer in the Dark Ages, I will not be guided by the blind. I will be, as Buddha counseled, a lamp unto myself, guided by science, reason, and evidence.

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8 thoughts on “Marcus Aurelius: Life is Brief

  1. Yes, our lives are short. Time, in my estimation, does not do anything to us: it just passes, until we, and other things, breakdown, fall apart, blow up or wear out. When it’s done, it’s done. I just try to enjoy what we have and manage those contingencies we would be better off without. Yesterday, I wrote a comparative critique of three faiths, pointing out their moral weaknesses. Had written comments to the blog before, always being assured someone would ‘get back to me’. Someone did. Very angry and agitated, in short: don’t write to us again. I won’t. My suspicions were confirmed.

  2. I came up with a physical representation (it’s even INTERACTIVE!!!) of the problem. About twenty years ago I purchased two glass vases and some thousands of differently colored tiny balls, each about a quarter of an inch in diameter. In the larger vase I laid down 3652 dark yellow balls representing the first ten years of my life. On top of these I put down a layer of 3653 black balls, representing my teen years, which I did not enjoy. Then came more layers representing my twenties, thirties, and forties. For my fifties, I laid down an appropriate number of red balls. Each day thereafter, I transferred one red ball from the “unused” vase to the “gone forever” vase. On my sixtieth birthday, I went to bright yellow balls. Now, in my seventies, I am using orange balls. You can find an explanation with photograph here:

  3. that is a great visual. the only thing about all these “life is short” images, (and I’ve published one myself) is they create a bit of anxiety in me. And I’m not sure I like the idea of feeling rushed to do something. I’m quite confused, and always have been, with how to live knowing that I will almost certainly die (even if science does eventually conquer death.)

  4. With age comes that natural dread of the ending of the life we wish would continue. While some suffering horrible pain may look forward to it, I am not one. Death at this time in inevitable, the best I can hope, as the poet said is, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Since there’s no avoiding it, let it be quick and painless, preferably in my sleep. Who knows? It may be an ending or a beginning of some new adventure. The latter hope appeals to me without evidence. When my father was dying, I asked him what he was expecting. “Nothing” he replied…just a long, silent sleep. So why do you still attend church, I asked? “Insurance,” he answered. He was a man that hedged his bets. R.I.P.

  5. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
    (English Standard Version)
    For everything there is a season,
    and a time for every matter under heaven:
    a time to be born, and a time to die;
    a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
    a time to kill, and a time to heal;
    a time to break down, and a time to build up;
    a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
    a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
    a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
    a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
    a time to seek, and a time to lose;
    a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
    a time to tear, and a time to sew;
    a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
    a time to love, and a time to hate;
    a time for war, and a time for peace.

  6. ”I recently scribbled this quote on my youngest daughter’s birthday card. Just her luck, her father is a philosopher! ”.

    No kidding. I wish someone had scribbled one for me too, a long time ago!

    As for the Stoics, their books are the only ones I keep reading over and over, after going taking pains to highlight all the most important passages. One of them is by Epictetus: ‘Think of death every day’. I did that for many months and lately modified it to: ‘Think of the inexorable passage of time every day’.

    The quote by Diderot is brilliant, I love it. Schopenhauer said similar things about theologians; everywhere in his writings appears his mockery and brutal criticism of theology. I am reading so many stories about how he would obliterate, in person, any theologian who crossed his path….some of the stories are amusing :).

    But to return to the topic, the more I think about the passage of time, the more I am shocked. Who amongst us doesn’t look back at some happy day during our childhood and are not shocked about how the time in between has raced.

    And the older we get, the faster the time seems to fly. It truly seems a bad joke.

    But what can we do? We have to try to make the best of it. How little and hopeless we all are. And even more shockingly, not only some people do not understand how brief life really is, they even do harm and destroy, as if things weren’t bad enough as they are!

    ”We waste half of our lives sleeping, and the rest we spend doing useless things or inflicting pain on those around us.”. -Seneca

    Thank you!

  7. Dr Messerly,

    yes, I remember well the post you mentioned, it was very interesting. I also had left various comments below it. 🙂


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